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Rolling to Victory: U.S. Enlists Automakers in WWI

By Llewellyn Hedgbeth

America's automotive industry played a definitive role both right before and during America's engagement in the First World War. It produced military vehicles and materiel in sufficient quantities to help the U.S. successfully prosecute the War to end all wars. Even before America declared war in April 1917, its car manufacturers were helping with military production, foreign as well as domestic. Manufacturers were looking for new markets and were more than willing to provide their expertise as war raged. They designed and developed new products, re-tooling plants to produce military equipment. And their American ingenuity and mass production techniques were vastly better suited to war production than the vintage, hand-crafted methods still in use in Europe at the start of the war. American manufacturers scored solid government contracts but also continued to promote civilian sales, encouraging buyers to support the war effort by saving resources and contributing to established war-support programs.

On the brink of war, America's military still relied heavily on horse power, i.e., riding stock — but that was about to change. A border skirmish with Mexico had already convinced military planners of the value of mechanized vehicles. Those planners kept a watchful eye on the European war, too, seeing that U.S. auto manufacturers were contributing vehicles there even before America decided to enter the fray.

Mexican Border War

While General John J. Pershing was a fine horseman often pictured astride his steed, he nonetheless appreciated the worth of a mechanized force. In the spring of 1916, during the Mexican Border War, he had first used cars, motorcycles, and even airplanes in a combat situation. In retaliation for Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, some 4800 U.S. troops crossed into Mexico to search for and capture Villa. Although U.S. troops engaged his rebel forces in several battles, Villa himself was never captured.

The U.S. Government had not planned for the expedition that would involve more than 700 horses and nearly 150 mules requiring six tons of hay and 9000 pounds of grain as daily feed. Officers went out in a car every morning to find and purchase corn and hay from local farmers. The army needed to transport supplies and equipment and had yet to establish a mechanized division. So the Quartermaster General started ordering — 147 mostly front-wheel drive trucks (since the rear-wheel drive trucks tended to bog down in dry sand) from seventeen truck companies (including Locomobile, Peerless, Reo, Packard, White, Kelly-Springfield, Velie, and King) at a cost of $3.5 million. Some of the trucks were even fitted with wheels that could run on roads or railroad tracks. An order for 27 trucks went out to Packard, for instance, and within 24 hours the trucks had been sent via special train, a chauffeur and mechanic included for each truck. It was still too early for the common foot soldier to have knowledge of how to operate a vehicle.

General Pershing was an early adopter of using armored vehicles in combat, launching a new lumbering giant of a truck. That was the Jeffery Quad, a heavy four-wheel drive truck armored by Bethlehem steel plates. It could reach a maximum of 20 mph, at 5 miles to the gallon.

Jeffery Quad armored truck.
Jeffery Quad armored truck.

Cars were needed to carry staff into the Mexican countryside and they were made available, as well. While Cadillac, Reo, and Ford all participated, it was Dodge Brothers who supplied open-top, armored touring cars for the General and his immediate staff. Motorcycles were in evidence, too, with Harley-Davidson providing several dozen specially-built (with sidecar gun carriages) bikes.

1915 armored Harley Davidson motorcycle.
1915 armored Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Added to the mix were eight bi-planes making up the 1st Aero Squadron, the planes utilized chiefly to get messages from field headquarters to units in the field. For all these mechanized vehicles, however, gasoline still had to come in on pack mules.

The chase went on for nine months, after which President Wilson called the soldiers home to prepare for action against Germany. Pershing left the dusty Mexican landscape behind, saying, "Villa is everywhere and Villa is nowhere."

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